Author Archives: Jennifer Mitchell, CAE

Primary Election Day 2020 is here. Go vote!

Today is “Super Tuesday,” the date of the 2020 primary election in Texas.

Polls are open until 7 p.m. tonight, and ATPE encourages all registered voters to get out and vote today!

Quick voting tips and reminders:

  • Know where to go vote today. Some counties offer countywide voting, which allows you to select from multiple locations. Other counties require you to vote in your precinct’s assigned polling location. Find out where you can vote on Election Day by entering your information here.
  • Texas has open primaries, meaning that you can choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic party primary election today. Your choice of a primary will not affect your ability to vote for any candidate on the ballot, regardless of party affiliation, in the November general election.
  • Use Vote411.org to print out a customized ballot to take with you to the polls. (You can’t use your cell phone inside the voting booth!)
  • Learn what to expect at your polling place today. Click here for ATPE’s tips on various balloting systems in use around Texas and more.
  • Don’t forget about the photo ID requirements for voting. Also, check out VoteTexas.gov for additional voting tips.
  • View profiles of the candidates running for the Texas House or Senate or the State Board of Education here on ATPE’s Teach the Vote. Learn where they stand on education issues based on their voting records, responses to our candidate survey, and other information.
  • Preview the non-binding ballot propositions that the state Republican and Democratic parties are asking their voters to weigh in on during this election. Learn more in this Teach the Vote blog post.

ATPE’s lobby team will be reporting on the Texas election results tomorrow on our blog. In the meantime, be sure to follow @TeachtheVote and our individual lobbyists on Twitter for updates.

Another poll shows strong support for public education

On the heels of a voter survey conducted by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune regarding state funding for public education (republished on Teach the Vote here), the Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT) Foundation has also released a new statewide poll this week about Texans’ attitudes toward public education. Both polls show support for public schools and educators with a desire for increased funding of public education.

The RYHT Foundation poll found that 77 percent of Texans express trust and confidence in their teachers, and 70 percent believe that teacher pay is too low. The poll also showed that 60 percent of the Texans responding were concerned that our state’s standardized tests may not effectively measure student learning. Half the respondents said they were not confident that Texas’s “A through F” accountability grading system accurately represents school quality. The poll also asked respondents about the top challenges they believe teachers are facing, the biggest problems affecting the public schools in their communities, and what their feelings are about wraparound supports for students, such as mental health services.

In a press release from RYHT, Foundation President Shari Albright said, “We’re pleased to be the first organization in the country to commit to an annual statewide poll about public education issues.” Albright added, “We thought it important to provide this service to Texans on an annual basis, both to understand the challenges and help find ways to improve our public schools.”

Read complete results and additional information about the new RYHT Foundation poll here.

Primary Colors: Why March 3 Matters (Part I)

In Texas, primary election results – not the November general election – often determine who will represent you in Austin. ATPE explains why in Part I of this “Primary Colors” blog feature for Teach the Vote.

We’ve written on our blog about how Texas legislative districts are often gerrymandered. The district map boundaries are drawn in such a way to favor a particular political party, making it easier for a candidate from that party to win election or re-election in that district. For this reason, it’s not uncommon for certain contested races to feature candidates who are all affiliated with the same political party. If the district is so heavily weighted toward one party, candidates from the other major party (not to mention independent and third-party candidates) may not even file for a place on the ballot. When this happens, the primary election becomes the final determinant of who will win that seat, making the November general election irrelevant for that particular race.

We’re certainly not suggesting that voting in the November general election is a waste of your time. (On the contrary, there are still scores of other races you should vote on in November!) ATPE is reminding our readers about this to illustrate just how important it is to be a primary election voter.

In 2020, there are several races in which all the candidates hail from the same political party. In these districts, the winner of the March 3 primary election wins the whole kit and caboodle, facing no opposition in November. If you happen to live in one of these Texas House districts, make sure you learn about the candidates who are running in either the Republican or Democratic primary election, because one of these individuals will quickly become your new state representative in 2021:

  • House District 9:
    Incumbent Rep. Chris Paddie is seeking a fifth term in the House and being challenged by Mark Williams in the Republican primary. No other candidates filed to run for this East Texas seat, so the Republican primary election will determine the final outcome.
  • House District 30:
    In Victoria, Rep. Geanie Morrison faces a challenge from Army veteran Vanessa Hicks-Callaway in the Republican primary. Morrison has held the seat since 1998.
  • House District 36:
    Incumbent Rep. Sergio Munoz is being challenged by Abraham Padron in the Democratic primary for this Edinburg seat. It’s a familiar match-up between these two; Padron unsuccessfully challenged Munoz in the 2016 and 2018 primaries.
  • House District 37:
    In 2018, Alex Dominguez prevailed in a winner-take-all primary election runoff in which he ousted longtime state representative René Oliveira for this Brownsville seat. Now the first-term incumbent Dominguez is preparing for yet another winner-take-all primary, facing a challenge from attorney Amber Medina in the Democratic primary.
  • House District 59:
    Incumbent Rep. J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville faces two challengers from within his own party: Republican candidates Shelby Slawson and Cody Johnson, both from Stephenville. There is no one else running in November, but with three candidates on the ballot in this closely watched primary battle, a runoff might become necessary to determine the final winner.
  • House District 72:
    San Angelo incumbent Rep. Drew Darby is being challenged by Lynette Lucas in this Republican primary race. Lucas sought to take the seat away from Darby back in 2018 but did not make it onto the ballot.
  • House District 76:
    This is an open seat that will be decided by the Democratic primary. Rep. Cesar Blanco (D) is not running for re-election, opting to run for a Texas Senate seat instead. The only two candidates who filed to run in this House race are Democrats Claudia Ordaz Perez and Elisa Tamayo. Ordaz Perez is a member of the El Paso City Council, while Tamayo learned the legislative ropes working for both Blanco and El Paso Sen. José Rodriguez.
  • House District 80:
    Incumbent Rep. Tracy King is being challenged by Danny Valdez. They’re both Democrats, and they’ve faced each before. In 2018, Valdez was unsuccessful in a similar challenge against King in this West Texas district.
  • House District 100:
    This is a crowded race, but all the candidates in this Dallas district hail from the Democratic party. The newly minted incumbent is Rep. Lorraine Birabil, sworn in just this month following a special election in January. To hold on to the seat in 2021, she’ll have to overcome opposition from James Armstrong, III (runner-up in the special election), Daniel Clayton, Sandra Crenshaw, Jasmine Crockett, and Paul Stafford.
  • House District 131:
    In Houston, incumbent Rep. Alma Allen faces two challengers from the Democratic Party: Carey Lashley and Elvonte Patton. Allen has held the seat since 2004, serving on the State Board of Education before that.
  • House District 141:
    The longest serving woman and longest serving African-American member of the Texas Legislature, Rep. Senfronia Thompson faces Willie Roaches Franklyn in the Democratic primary this year. Roaches Franklyn is a school counselor and administrator hoping to unseat the inimitable “Ms. T” in this Houston battle.
  • House District 147:
    Rep. Garnet Coleman, the incumbent for this Houston district since 1990, is facing two opponents in the primary. His Democratic Party challengers are Aurelia Wagner, a teacher, and Colin Ross, who runs a grease recycling business.

Additionally, there are several state legislative races in which no other candidate filed to run in 2020 against the incumbent. Thus, the current officeholder will retain the seat next year. These are the legislators who are already presumptive winners of another term starting in 2021:

  • Sen. Charles Perry, SD 28
  • Rep. Gary VanDeaver, HD 1
  • Rep. Jay Dean, HD 7
  • Rep. Kyle Kacal, HD 12
  • Rep. Ben Leman, HD 13
  • Rep. Will Metcalf, HD 16
  • Rep. Ernest Bailes, HD 18
  • Rep. James White, HD 19
  • Rep. Dade Phelan, HD 21
  • Rep. Oscar Longoria, HD 35
  • Rep. Mando Martinez, HD 39
  • Rep. Terry Canales, HD 40
  • Rep. Richard Raymond, HD 42
  • Rep. J.M. Lozano, HD 43
  • Rep. Sheryl Cole, HD 46
  • Rep. Mary Gonzalez, HD 75
  • Rep. Lina Ortega, HD 77
  • Rep. Art Fierro, HD 79
  • Rep. Brooks Landgraf, HD 81
  • Rep. Tom Craddick, HD 82
  • Rep. John Smithee, HD 86
  • Rep. Four Price, HD 87
  • Rep. Ken King, HD 88
  • Rep. Nicole Collier, HD 95
  • Rep. Charlie Geren, HD 99
  • Rep. Chris Turner, HD 101
  • Rep. Jessica Gonzalez, HD 104
  • Rep. Toni Rose, HD 110
  • Rep. Yvonne Davis, HD 111
  • Rep. Diego Bernal, HD 123
  • Rep. Ina Minjarez, HD 124
  • Rep. Armando Walle, HD 140
  • Rep. Ana Hernandez-Luna, HD 143

There are a handful of other races in which a single Republican or Democratic candidate faces opposition only from an independent or third-party candidate in November. In most of these cases, the major party candidate is the incumbent officeholder; Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston),  Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), and Rep. Cody Harris (R-Palestine) are just a few examples. One notable exception is in SBOE District 8, where incumbent Barbara Cargill is not seeking re-election. The only candidates to file in the race to fill this open seat were Audrey Young, a Republican educator from Lufkin, and Libertarian candidate Bryan Leonard, for whom little campaign information can be found.

Now that we’ve shown you just how competitive and meaningful the Texas primary elections can be, we hope you’re ready to cast a vote in the Democratic or Republican primary election. In Part II of this blog series for Teach the Vote, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins will share more insight on why it’s so critical to be a primary voter in Texas, especially in 2020.

Early voting in the Texas primaries runs February 18-28. Primary election day, known as “Super Tuesday,” is March 3, 2020.

Election tips for educators: Know your rights and the rules

With the 2020 Texas primary election nearing, ATPE has been urging educators to be active and involved voters. We’ve shared resources on the ins and outs of voting, plus tools you can use to learn more about the candidates. Here on Teach the Vote, ATPE’s nonpartisan voter education website, we provide searchable profiles of every candidate vying for a seat in the Texas Legislature or State Board of Education this year, aimed at helping you learn their views about public education. We’ve also asked you to remind your co-workers, friends, and family members about the importance of voting in every election, helping them to become informed voters, too.

The 2018 elections saw a surge in voter turnout within the Texas education community, which paid off the following year: The Legislature in 2019 approved billions of dollars of additional funding for our public schools and higher pay for many teachers through House Bill 3. While new laws passed in 2019 are still being implemented, there is already anxiety about the state’s ability to maintain funding for House Bill 3 into the future, along with other pressing issues such as school safety, healthcare affordability, and student testing. Strong educator turnout in the 2020 elections will be even more critical if we want to keep public education at the forefront of the next legislative session.

Unfortunately, at the same time we’re doing our best to get educators fired up about voting, there are some who would prefer that active and retired teachers stay home on election day. One of their attempts to dampen educator turnout has been through intimidation, issuing dire warnings about election laws and the criminal consequences for educators who may cross the line. How do we keep educators enthusiastic about voting and encouraging others to vote while still helping them understand what they can and cannot do under the law?

Election laws can be complicated, and in this rapidly evolving area of the law, new regulations may be subject to varying interpretations, at least until they become time-tested and vetted by court cases that may take decades to resolve. Collisions can easily occur at the intersection of the First Amendment and the various state laws, administrative rules, advisory opinions, and official policies on political activity. There will always be plenty of “grey area” for legal scholars to debate, but in the meantime, there is at least one simple rule of thumb that can help public school employees figure out what’s allowed and what’s not. If you are showing support for a specific candidate, political party, or measure that appears on the ballot (such as a local proposition for a new bond or a constitutional amendment), then you should take care to avoid using any resources of your school district while doing so.

Get Out The Vote (GOTV) initiatives have long been accepted as nonpartisan activities that do not cross the line into what’s considered “political advertising” or “electioneering.” Encouraging people to vote, regardless of how they might vote, benefits no particular candidate or political party. High voter turnout is simply good for our democracy.

The rules get trickier when it comes to partisan activities, such as asking people to vote for a specific candidate or to support one political party over another. There’s a big difference between urging someone to “go vote,” and urging them to “go vote for _________.”

As educators, you have a constitutional right to undertake partisan activities. You are well within your rights to share with other people your personal preferences in any given election and even to try to persuade them to vote the same way. You can give money to a candidate or PAC, walk the neighborhood handing out campaign materials, or wear the candidate’s t-shirt to show off your support. But when it comes to partisan election activities and communications, it’s important for public employees to restrict those to their own personal time and assets. It is unlawful for public school employees to use school district resources for electioneering or political advertising. That means, for instance, that you should not print out flyers for your favorite candidate on the printer in the teachers’ lounge, and you should not use your school email address to send out invitations to the candidate’s fundraiser. In other words, if taxpayers are footing the bill for it, consider it off-limits when it comes to your own personal preference toward someone or something that will appear on a ballot.

For more guidance on what is and is not allowable for public school employees, school district leaders, and school board trustees to do during election season, check out these additional resources made for educators:

Educators can and should be active participants in the electoral process, and you have an excellent opportunity to model good citizenship and political involvement for your students. Make sure you know your rights and the rules, and then get out and vote!

Early voting for the 2020 Texas primary election runs February 18-28. Primary election day is March 3, 2020.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 7, 2020

Check out what happened this week in education news from Texas and the nation’s capital, courtesy of the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


ELECTION UPDATE: Voting in the Texas primary elections will begin in less than two weeks. Early voting starts February 18, 2020, which is also Educator Voting Day, and ends February 28. Our state’s primary elections on “Super Tuesday” will be March 3, 2020.

This week on our blog, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter shared information about education-related recommendations in the ballot propositions being put to voters by the Texas Republican and Democratic Parties in this primary election. The ballot propositions help each political party fine-tune its platform based on views expressed by voters in the primary election on various issues. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins looked at some of the latest campaign fundraising news, takeaways from the Iowa caucuses earlier this week, and more in his election roundup blog post from yesterday.

With the primary elections inching closer, ATPE is focusing on helping educators find resources that will help them learn more about the candidates vying for their votes. Read up on the people running for the Texas Legislature or State Board of Education in 2020 by viewing their candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. The profiles include candidates’ responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey, legislators’ voting records, campaign contact information, and additional information. ATPE does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to participate in our survey project and share information for their profiles that appear on Teach the Vote. Watch this new instructional video to learn the different ways you can search for candidate information using Teach the Vote.

For additional resources to help you prepare for early voting, visit TexasEducatorsVote.com, or attend one of the “For the Future” education-themed candidate forums being hosted by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation. Click here for details on the events.


FEDERAL UPDATE: President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union (SOTU) address on Tuesday, the third of his presidency. In the speech, as ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reports for Teach the Vote, the president expressed his opposition to public schools and called on Congress to pass a school voucher bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). The bill in question, S. 634, proposes to divert taxpayer dollars that may otherwise go to public education away from local schools and use those tax dollars to subsidize private and for-profit programs. The president cast public schools disparagingly as “failing government schools.” It’s worth noting the Texas Constitution guarantees a right to a free public education as being key to a healthy democratic society, and our state has a long history of independent school districts run by the communities they serve. ATPE’s Wiggins spoke to the Houston Chronicle and previewed the president’s remarks on Tuesday in this blog post.


Last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 included a Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) intended to provide additional funding to school districts that create an incentive pay system for teachers. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reports that districts interested in creating a TIA program were asked to submit letters of intent to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) by January 24 of this year. Anecdotal reports indicate that more than 700 of the state’s over 1,000 school districts have responded to date. TEA is implementing this initiative with a series of presentations to stakeholders around the state, and the agency is expected to publish rules in March 2020.

ATPE successfully lobbied the 86th Legislature to ensure that districts would not be required to use the STAAR test to measure teacher performance as part of a TIA program, but questions remain over the degree to which these programs may rely on student test scores. We will be paying close attention during the rulemaking process to see how these programs are allowed to be structured in order to qualify for the additional state funding. You can read more about TIA programs from TEA here.


Members of the ATPE Governmental Relations team gave a presentation on advocacy at this week’s Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) Convention and Exposition in Austin. Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, Lobbyist Mark Wiggins, and Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier spoke to attendees about the implementation of major bills passed in 2019, what’s at stake in the 2020 elections, and ways educators can get involved in advocacy efforts.

ATPE lobbyists Wiggins, Mitchell, Exter, and Chevalier at the TCEA Convention, Feb. 4, 2020

Special Texas House runoff election results for Jan. 28, 2020

Voters in three Texas House districts hit the polls on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, to elect their new state representatives. The special runoff elections in Ft. Bend County’s House District (HD) 28, HD 100 in Dallas, and Houston’s HD 148 were needed after those three state representatives resigned their seats late last year. No candidate earned enough votes in the original special elections on Nov. 5, 2019, to win any of these House seats outright. The winner in each of tonight’s runoffs will serve out the remainder of the current term of office, ending just prior to the start of the next regular legislative session in 2021.

Here’s a look at the results of the three special election runoffs held tonight:

HD 28 Runoff:

This was a race to fill the seat previously held by former Rep. John Zerwas (R-Fulshear), who resigned in 2019 to become executive vice chancellor for health affairs for the University of Texas System. As reported on the Texas Secretary of State’s website, a total of 30,074 votes were cast in this highly publicized runoff, representing an impressive 20% of the registered voters in that district. This figure exceeded turnout in the original November special election and is believed to be higher than any other Texas House special election taking place since at least 1992.

  • Gary Gates (R) earned 58.05% of the vote to win the race. He is a real estate investor from Rosenberg.
  • Eliz Markowitz (D), an educator from Katy, received 41.95% of the vote.

HD 100 Runoff:

This seat was previously held by former Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) who resigned last fall after being elected Mayor of Dallas. Per the Texas Secretary of State’s website, only 2,479 voters weighed in on this all-Democratic runoff.

  • Lorraine Birabil (D) was declared the winner with 66.28% of the vote. She is an attorney from Dallas with a background in public policy.
  • James Armstrong, III (D) received 33.72% of the vote. Armstrong leads an affordable housing organization in Dallas.

HD 148 Runoff:

This race was to fill the remainder of the term of former Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), who also resigned in 2019. The Texas Secretary of State’s website reported that 6,915 votes were cast in this special runoff election.

  • Anna Eastman (D) won with 65.47% of the vote. Eastman is a social worker who previously served on the Houston ISD board of trustees.
  • Luis LaRotta (R), a Navy veteran from Houston now working in the energy industry, earned 34.53% of the vote.

Barring a special session, it is unlikely that any of the winners of tonight’s runoff will have an opportunity to vote on legislation this year before their terms expire in Jan. 2021. However, all six of the candidates in the above runoffs are also vying for a full term in these same seats during the regular 2020 elections, meaning that their names will be on the ballot again in the Texas primary election that is only weeks away. The winners of tonight’s special election will now have the advantage of claiming incumbent status during the remainder of this 2020 election cycle. Be sure to check out their candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote before the next elections on Super Tuesday in March 2020.

Learn about Texas House candidates in this month’s special election runoffs

On Jan. 28, 2020, voters in three Texas House districts have an opportunity to elect a new state representative. Early voting begins today for the Jan. 28 runoff elections for House Districts 28, 100, and 148. These runoffs follow a special election last Nov. 5, 2019, to fill those three vacant House seats. Registered voters in those three districts may vote in the runoff regardless of whether they participate in the original election back in November.

With the field now narrowed to two final candidates in each race, here’s a closer look at the three runoffs:

  • The HD 28 contest in Ft. Bend County is a high-profile race that ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins wrote about last fall for our blog. The race has gained widespread attention with heavy-hitters from both parties, including several 2020 presidential candidates, traveling to Texas to stump for the candidates in this swing district. The runoff candidates are Gary Gates, a Republican real estate investor from Rosenberg, and Eliz Markowitz, a Democratic educator from Katy. In November, almost 20 percent of this district’s registered voters turned out to vote in the original election, in which Markowitz was the frontrunner but did not earn enough votes to avoid a runoff. The winner of this month’s race assumes the House seat previously held by former Rep. John Zerwas (R) for the remainder of this year.

 

  • In Dallas County’s HD 100, both of the runoff candidates are Democrats. The seat was previously held by former Rep. Eric Johnson (D) who resigned after being elected Mayor of Dallas. Runoff candidate James Armstrong, III leads an affordable housing organization. His opponent Lorraine Birabil is an attorney with a background in public policy. Birabil and Armstrong finished first and second in the November election, in which less than 8 percent of that district’s registered voters weighed in.

 

  • HD 148 is a Houston race to fill the remainder of the term of former Rep. Jessica Farrar (D).  Democrat Anna Eastman is a social worker who previously served on the Houston ISD board of trustees. Republican Luis LaRotta is a Navy veteran now working in the energy industry. Eastman earned 20% of the vote in November, followed by LaRotta with 16% of the vote. Slightly more than a quarter of the district’s registered voters turned out to vote in this race in November.

 

ATPE invited all of the above runoff candidates to take our candidate survey on education issues. As of this date, only one of the candidates has responded, but you can view all of their profiles using the links above on the candidates’ names. It is worth noting that all six of these runoff candidates are also on the regular ballot in 2020, seeking to win the same House seat for a full two-year term starting in Jan. 2021.

This Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, is the last opportunity for early voting before the runoff election day on Tuesday, Jan. 28. For more information about where and when to vote in these three districts, check with your local registrar of voters or visit VoteTexas.gov.

Exploring legislators’ 2019 voting records on education: Part II

As part of our officeholder profiles featured here on TeachtheVote.org, ATPE recently published a series of record votes taken by state legislators during the 2019 legislative session. In Part I of this two-part feature on our blog, we shared information about the education-related bills on which those votes were taken, explaining their significance during a legislative session that was heavily centered around school finance and public education. In Part II, we’re offering a closer look at how the record vote information was compiled by the ATPE lobby team and what insights may be gained from viewing the voting histories. Read more about our process, and then discover how your legislators voted on public education bills this year. Use our search page on Teach the Vote to view the profile of any legislator.

How are record votes useful, and what are their limitations?

There are several organizations that track record votes during a legislative session. Some groups issue scorecards or assign grades to legislators based on how well their votes aligned with that particular organization’s legislative agenda. Some entities use those scorecards to make decisions about campaign contributions or endorsements during an election cycle that follows the legislative session. ATPE does not calculate scores or assign grades to legislators. We focus our efforts more on collecting data that we believe can be useful to constituents in analyzing their lawmakers’ actions. Just as legislators’ responses to our ATPE Candidate Survey may help explain their views on public education issues to voters, the voting records also provide insight into how a lawmaker has approached public education bills in the past or may vote on similar issues in the future. All of that information can help voters who care about public education make informed decisions at the polls, but the data may also provide a starting point for year-round conversations between educators and their lawmakers, which are key to building collaborations and working together to meet the needs of public schools, students, and educators.

Senate Legislative Process (click to open a larger version)

ATPE’s lobbyists caution that recorded votes offer only one data point among many for examination of a lawmaker’s tenure and treatment of public education. There are a number of reasons why a lawmaker’s vote on a single bill may not tell the whole story. For one thing, recorded votes are relatively few. So much negotiation on bills takes place behind the scenes, with bill authors carefully gauging support for their proposals and typically ensuring that they have enough votes to pass a bill before it ever reaches the floor of the House or Senate. In many cases, by the time a bill hits the floor there is ample agreement for the measure to pass unanimously or by a simple voice vote. We do still include some unanimous votes on our Teach the Vote legislator profiles when the bills are major ones deemed to be of great interest to our readers. With so much work being done behind the scenes, it’s good to remember that legislators have additional opportunities to support and show leadership on public education issues by shepherding those bills through the process in ways that are rarely seen by the public and not recorded in any official manner.

House Legislative Process (click to open a larger version)

Another thing to bear in mind about record votes is that there are multiple floor votes taken on each bill that ultimately makes it to the governor’s desk. The state’s legislative process calls for bills to be read three times in each chamber, with the House and Senate both voting on the measures at the second and third reading stages. When the two chambers approve competing versions of the same bill, a conference committee is appointed to work out the differences and recommend a final negotiated version, which then must be voted on again by the House and Senate. Sometimes a conference committee is authorized to “go outside the bounds” of the bills passed by each chamber and may add new language, which then makes the final vote on approving the conference committee report (the final version of the bill) more significant. More commonly, however, there is near unanimous agreement on adopting the conference committee report for a bill, since it represents a compromise worked out between the two chambers.

Not every bill ends up in a conference committee, of course. When the House and Senate both approve a bill on third reading, and when the language passed by both chambers is identical, that sends the bill to the governor. Most votes featured in the voting records that you see on Teach the Vote are pulled from second and/or third reading results. The bulk of a bill’s floor debate happens on second reading, often making that vote the most significant one. Once past the second reading stage, bills are rarely amended or even debated substantively on third reading. There is frequently little to no difference between the votes cast on second reading and the votes cast on third reading. When the second and third reading votes on a bill are virtually identical, ATPE’s lobbyists often showcase the third reading vote on the legislator’s voting record since it is a more final vote by the House or Senate and the one that either sends the bill forward to the other chamber or on to the Governor’s desk. When there are noteworthy differences between what happens on the second and third readings, for instance when a bill gets amended between the two votes, ATPE notes this in our explanations of the vote.

For all of the votes we highlight on the Teach the Vote legislator profiles, we take our data from the House and Senate journals, which are considered the official records. ATPE provides links to the specific pages in the journals where the votes are documented, enabling our readers to see the backup documentation for our material along with additional information, such as transcripts of some floor debates when requested by legislators. Using the journals as our official resource for record votes enables us to share those additional insights about legislative intent.

Also in the journal are notations requested by legislators to be added to the record after the vote. For example, it is not uncommon for a legislator to be marked as absent during any given vote. This may be an excused absence, such as when a legislator misses an entire day of legislative activity on account of an urgent need back home, or merely a temporary absence from the chamber. Anyone who has visited the Capitol during a session knows that there is always a lot of activity taking place, and there are times during a long day or night when a lawmaker needs (or chooses) to step away from their desk, possibly missing a record vote. In those instances, the legislators may request a note in the journal to indicate how they would have voted on the bill had they been present. Another phenomenon that occurs regularly in the House, where votes are entered via buttons on the representative’s desk and recorded electronically, is the “machine malfunction.” The representative may request a notation in the journal to say that he or she intended to vote “yes” but was recorded as voting “no” or vice versa. These notes do not change the official voting record or outcome, but can lend insight as to the legislator’s intent. Whether the voting machine actually malfunctioned or the legislator’s mind was merely changed after seeing the final vote tally is a matter of interpretation. ATPE’s lobbyists believe these postscripts can be instructive to constituents or perhaps spark a dialogue with their representative, which is why we share this information along with the official record votes.

For all but the freshmen legislators, we have included historical voting records on Teach the Vote, which you’ll see below the most recent session’s votes. These go back as far as 2013, which was the first session in which ATPE published voting histories on Teach the Vote. Also, because there are a fair number of state senators who began their legislative careers as state representatives, we’ve made an effort to include their prior House voting records in addition to their record votes in the Senate. We believe these historical voting records, where available, can be helpful in examining an elected official’s position over time.

We hope you will take a look at how your legislators voted in the 2019 legislative session and use that information for dialogue during the legislative interim and for candidate research for the next election cycle. For additional information about ATPE’s voting records provided on Teach the Vote, contact the ATPE Governmental Relations department.

Exploring legislators’ 2019 voting records on education: Part I

Last week on TeachtheVote.org, ATPE published a series of voting records for all Texas state lawmakers, analyzing their actions taken on significant education-related legislation. This blog post is Part I of a two-part feature on the record votes. Here, we’re taking a closer look at how the ATPE lobby team analyzed and chose the record votes that are featured on the legislators’ profiles.

Which bills are featured in the 2019 legislative voting records on Teach the Vote, and why were they chosen?

Without question, the most significant bill debated and ultimately passed by the 86th Texas Legislature this year was House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood). This major school finance and public education reform bill, deemed the top priority of the session, resulted in $6.5 billion in increased funding for public education and $5 billion for property tax relief. ATPE’s lobbyists have written extensively about the omnibus bill here on our Teach the Vote blog, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also dedicated a set of online resources to helping Texans understand the many components of the bill. With its high profile, HB 3 figures prominently in the 2019 record votes compiled by ATPE. We’ve selected both the House’s and Senate’s votes on HB 3 on “third reading” as the first record vote featured in this year’s list for Teach the Vote.

There are also a few votes on floor amendments to HB 3 that made our list this year. On the House side, we’ve provided representatives’ votes on House Floor Amendment #15 to HB 3, which dealt with charter school transparency and efficiency. The amendment by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), which passed and was incorporated into the House’s version of HB 3 but later stripped out by the Senate, requires charter schools to undergo an audit of their fiscal management. The Bailes amendment would have required such an audit to be conducted before a charter could expand or open new campuses, and it also called for charter schools to share the results of those audits publicly on their websites.

For senators, we similarly tracked their votes on three amendments to HB 3:

  • Senate Floor Amendment #8 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) attempted to remove from the Senate’s version of HB 3 a controversial merit pay program that ATPE and most of the education community opposed.
  • Senate Floor Amendment #30 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) also failed to pass but aimed to provide a guaranteed pay raise for all professional public school employees. While teacher pay was another high-profile issue debated throughout the 2019 legislative session, most discussions about pay raises at that point in the session had been limited to classroom teachers and librarians.
  • Also, Senate Floor Amendment #66 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) was an unsuccessful attempt to add language to the Senate’s version of HB 3 to ensure that state standardized tests were written at the appropriate grade level. Testing was also a subject of great importance to the education community during the legislative session, particularly after studies found that certain test questions on the STAAR test had been written at reading levels well above the grade level being tested. Although the Menendez floor amendment did not get approved by the Senate, another bill passed during the 2019 legislative session (HB 3906) requires a study of STAAR readability, and results of that study should be released beginning in December.

HB 3 ultimately included some additional funding for increasing educator compensation, but it was not the only bill pertaining to teacher pay that lawmakers debated in 2019. Early in the session, the Senate rallied behind Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) pledged would be one of the first bills passed by the full Senate in 2019. Although SB 3 was later rejected in favor of the alternative compensation-related language in HB 3, we’ve included the Senate’s third reading vote on SB 3 in our list of record votes due to its early significance.

ATPE also supported a stand-alone bill in 2019 that was designed to fund and strengthen mentoring programs for teachers. The House’s third reading vote on HB 102 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) made our list of record votes this year. HB 102 did not get heard in the Senate, but its language was later incorporated into HB 3.

Another piece of legislation related to educator quality produced one of the record votes published on Teach the Vote this year. The House voted to approve HB 1276 by Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) on third reading. HB 1276 was designed to prevent elementary grade students from being assigned for two consecutive school years to teachers who had less than one year of teaching experience or teachers who were not certified in the subject being taught as part of the foundation curriculum. Exceptions would have been provided under HB 1276 for new transfer students and for students whose parent or guardian consents to the non-compliant placement. Also, the bill would not have applied to school districts serving fewer than 5,000 students, those exempted under the District of Innovation (DOI) law, or those districts that received a hardship waiver from the commissioner of education. Unfortunately, this ATPE-supported bill did not get heard in the Senate.

School safety was another high priority issue debated during the 2019 legislative session. The key piece of legislation on keeping schools safe was SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), aimed at driving funding to implement school safety improvements and provide mental health resources. We’ve featured on our website the third reading vote taken on this bill in both the House and Senate chambers. Also on our list is the House’s treatment of House Floor Amendment #8 by Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) to SB 11, aimed at improving mental health support by requiring the state to identify regional resources that schools could use to address their students’ mental health needs. Legislators were considering a number of different measures pertaining to mental health resources in the context of the debate about school safety. Particularly in the House, some lawmakers were openly skeptical of efforts to link students with outside mental health professionals, worried about privacy concerns, and generally opposed to perceived government overreach. The controversy surrounding those issues had seemingly killed another high-priority bill aimed at addressing mental health earlier on the same evening that SB 11 was being debated. House leaders used Rep. Allison’s floor amendment as a vehicle for resurrecting the lost bill. Thus, Allison’s original amendment to SB 11 passed, was reconsidered, got amended to include language from the other mental health bill that had already been voted down, and then Floor Amendment #8 passed again. We provided data on both votes approving Floor Amendment #8 since there were some representatives who opted to change their position on the Allison amendment after it was expanded.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also garnered attention during the 2019 session and was an ATPE legislative priority. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which increased the contribution rates for the TRS pension fund. ATPE included the third reading votes on this bill taken by both the House and Senate among our record votes compilation. The legislature’s passage of SB 12 resulted in immediate actuarial solvency for the fund, which made it possible for TRS to issue a one-time 13th check to retirees in Sept. 2019. Read more about the TRS bill here.

Another ATPE legislative priority for 2019 was opposing vouchers and stopping the privatization of public schools in any form. Few voucher bills were considered this session, but the full Senate did take a vote on Sen. Taylor’s SB 1455, which we included on our list of record votes. The bill would have expanded full-time virtual schools and created a “virtual voucher.” Despite passing the Senate, SB 1455 did not make it out of a committee on the House side.

The House also took a record vote on HB 1133 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), which is included on our list. That bill produced one of the most dramatic debates but did not garner enough votes to pass the House. HB 1133 would have weakened the existing 22:1 cap on elementary school class sizes by moving to a campus-wide, grade-level average. Many ATPE members reached out to their legislators in opposition to this bill, which would have allowed class sizes in the lower grades to dramatically expand.

Finally, there are a few record votes on our list this year that pertain to efforts to restrict legislative advocacy by school districts or dissuade educators from being politically active. One such bill was SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), which the Senate voted to approve on third reading but the House left pending in committee. ATPE staunchly opposed SB 1569, which would have restricted educators’ First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, limited their ability to teach students about elections, and unreasonably subjected educators to criminal penalties. Another troubling bill was SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which tried to prohibit school districts and other local governmental entities from funding legislative advocacy efforts or paying membership dues to organizations that engage in legislative advocacy. SB 29 made our record votes list in two places. First, the Senate voted to approve the bill on third reading. Later, the House voted the bill down. Interestingly, the vote to defeat SB 29 on the House floor became even more significant after the legislative session ended, when certain Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill were seemingly targeted for retribution by their own party leadership in a taped discussion between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the head of the controversial dark money group, Empower Texans. The scandal resulted in Bonnen’s announcing that he would not seek re-election, opening the door for election of a new speaker when the 2021 legislative session convenes.

In any legislative session, there are limited votes taken on the record, offering relatively few options for us to showcase how individual legislators voted on education-related bills. However, we believe the votes listed above offer an informative glimpse into the treatment of public education by the 86th Texas Legislature, and we invite you to check out how your legislators voted by looking them up on our search page here on Teach the Vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for Part II of this blog feature where the ATPE lobbyists will explain more about the usefulness and limitations of record votes in general.